Higher education cannot be experienced, nor can it function in isolation from its relevant industries. We need to be aware of the country’s demand for resources and an effective workforce that will support industries to take the economy to the next level.
Educators need to be responsive and relevant in the face of current demand so that economic expansion and development can take place. Given that, we cannot look at undergraduate or postgraduate studies as a mere academic exercise.
This is something we need to be aware of, especially as Sri Lanka enters a new era, both politically and economically. It is this reality that will trigger ways in which we can fine-tune our planning and strategic thinking towards building a productive workforce through the higher education system we develop.
This is not a new concept for the Sri Lanka Institute of Information Technology (SLIIT), a not for profit university we conceived to fill a need within the IT industry.
SLIIT has blossomed into a viable formula that can now be replicated in the non-state not-for-profit education sector. From a fledgling university with 395 students offering one course in 1999, the university has grown to provide learning to a student body of 9,500, offering over 75 courses. What is more relevant is that 93% of our graduates find employment and are well placed.
However, it is unfortunate that despite all our efforts in the higher education sector, be it State, not for profit or private, Sri Lanka still seems to stand on edge, inadequate in the face of meeting the demands of a growing market. Now is the time to work to a plan or we would risk losing it all, by having to import resources from all over the world to fuel the engines of growth in the country.
I believe more and more that education cannot be looked at in isolation — in fact, it must go beyond that i.e., it needs to be looked at as a strong link in the value chains that we create for our nation’s wealth creation. My suggestion to this is that various industries such as IT, Electronics, and Engineering as well as Education and Higher Education sectors should form clusters, where each cluster should have an education institute that is fine-tuned to meet its needs.
The IT and Knowledge Services industry has been on a rapid growth trajectory over the last 20 years due to the availability of quality human resources, infrastructure, and an enabling environment. The export revenue from this industry has increased from about $30 million to well over $1 billion during this period. This industry has an enormous potential and if the correct strategies are employed the industry could be expanded to generate an export revenue of about $3 billion a year and employment opportunities for over 300,000 professionals in the next five years.
Another industry that could be developed along with the IT industry is the Electrical and Electronic industry. There are about 70 companies in this sector earning an export revenue of about $400 million a year. The IT, Electrical and Electronic clusters are generally complementary to each other and can be grown in such a manner so that they can be merged to create a large Technology cluster.
The Education and Higher Education sectors are the other areas that need developing. While education and higher education are both necessary to develop requisite human resources for any industry, the higher education sector can be developed as an exportable service.
Stages of development and competitiveness of an industry sector depends on its stage of maturity. The stages can be divided into three phases i.e. factor-based, efficiency-based and innovation-based.
Factor-based: An industry sector can be built with the presence of necessary factors such as infrastructure, human resources, business environment including availability of funds and concessions and the legal regulatory environment. The competitiveness of the industry is associated with the availability and the cost of these factors and conduciveness of the business and legal and regulatory environment.
Efficiency-based: Factor based strategy is appropriate for an industry to be competitive when the industry is in a nascent stage in a particular country or a region. This is a time bound strategy as the cost of the factors can increase with the rise of the income levels and other competing countries and regions can also make their business environments more conducive. Efficiency based competitiveness strategy relies on the efficiency of systems, quality of processes and availability of advanced skills. An industry should not depend on this strategy to remain competitive for a long period as these could also be achieved by other countries and regions.
Innovation-based: For an industry to stay ahead of competing countries and regions, it has to continuously engage in research and development and be innovative in order to develop products and services that have a competitive advantage in global markets.
If the SLIIT initiative is taken as an example, we have moved through these stages in distilling our process to become more efficient in our delivery. As we expand into fresh fields of education and research, our final goal is to be innovation based. It is at that point that we would know how responsive we are to the needs of the environment that we operate in. There is no denying that there is an urgent need for us to be resilient and this resilience is driven by an innovative state which has to be an important part of the higher education system of our country.
We at SLIIT drive this into the heart of our systems and have several tools that we employ including 21st century learning and skills development, incubator programs and learning beyond memorising.
As we take the leap forward to our country’s next stage of development, there are many things that need to be done, but key amongst them is gearing our young to meet the challenges of a new world. This could only be done through strategic thinking and planned processes.
[The writer, BSc. Eng (Hons), MSc. PhD, CEng, MBCS, MIEE is a Sri Lankan academic and Professor, currently serving as the Managing Director and CEO of the Sri Lanka Institute of Information Technology, a position he has held since the institute’s inception in 1999. He has also served as Chairman of the Arthur C. Clarke Institute for Modern Technologies. As a leading Sri Lankan academic in the field of Electronics Engineering and Computer Science, Prof Gamage plays an important role in the development of IT education, research and industry in Sri Lanka. He was recently appointed as a member of the board of the Information and Communication Technology Agency of Sri Lanka (ICTA).]